Instagram vs Reality:
When things flop, we can think about others’ highlight reels and think our own travel experiences pale by comparison.
I’m staring into the turquoise blue waters of Humantay Lake on my first day of a multi-day trek in the Peruvian Andes. It’s beautiful. Snow-capped mountains sit just behind the lake. The water is so clear, it looks like thirsty hikers could drink it. I’m a mountain person (as of recent years) and being outside, and high up in places where mountain peaks touch the sky is my kind of place. But I don’t feel right. My stomach feels… off. I’m nauseous. “Want to go climb up the side of that mountain?” My brother, Ronan, wants to explore a little more. I don’t. “Go ahead,” I tell him. “I’m not feeling well.” In the next 20 minutes, my state worsens. I give up on sticking with the group and make a run for it down the mountain. “Looks like Sinead’s feeling better,” says Miranda, my brother’s girlfriend. “No,” he responds. “I don’t think that’s a good sign.” I get to base camp and throw up. Altitude sickness.
This is 2019 and the three of us are in Peru for two weeks to celebrate the holidays and ring in the new decade. We’re on the Salkantay Trek: five days of hiking from the mountains outside of Cusco to Machu Picchu. We’re active and outdoorsy people so a multi-day trek to one of South America’s most coveted places seemed like an obvious adventure for our itinerary. Peru is undeniably a gorgeous country with a rich culture. But there’s been some mishaps. Ronan has already been sick and spent the bus journey from Lima to the desert in the fetal position. There, Miranda’s legs became an all-you-can-eat-buffet for mosquitos or sand fleas (in all likelihood, both) and she has been severely polka dotted ever since. She also almost fell through a staircase on New Year’s Eve (which, to be fair, was probably just 2020 being the jerk that it was).
Travel isn’t always pretty, even if the photos we post to our Instagrams are. How could we even expect it to be?
We’ve joked that I’m next. And here it is: altitude sickness has struck the person who already lives at altitude. In the Andes. In the county next door. The irony isn’t lost on me as my stomach lurches again.
But this is just travel: the non-Instagrammable side. The mishaps that happen along the way—traveller’s sickness, cancelled flights, cultural or language confusion, overpaying in tourist destinations, or things not going according to plan—are kind of par for the course. When you leave your comfort zone, you put yourself in situations that aren’t always neatly packaged. Travel isn’t always pretty, even if the photos we post to our Instagrams are. How could we even expect it to be? How could we possibly expect everything to go seamlessly when the learning curve to understanding a new place is as steep as it is? That’s why we call it an adventure!
I think travellers need to talk more about the non-Instagrammable side of travel because in those moments when things flop, we can think about others’ highlight reels and think our own experiences pale by comparison. Really though, this is just the deal. Things go awry. That’s kind of part of the fun and what you sign up for. I posed for a photo beside the beautiful Lake Humantay (how could you not!?) even though it felt like my insides were doing a horrible sort of tap dance.
The non-Instagrammable side of travel is something I’ve definitely experienced before. Often. In Colombia, I got lost the first time I tried to take a bus alone. I’ve showed up to small, ATM-less towns without enough cash and counted nickels curbside with my travel buddy. I’ve stumbled my way through conversions wondering if I’d ever get to learn the local language and felt hopelessly incompetent. My phone has died or lost service in times when I really needed it. I’ve run into curmudgeonly immigration officers, opportunistic taxi drivers, and the creepiest men. I’ve been on bus journeys that felt like express rides straight to hell.
...there’s shitty times, and right afterwards, there’s the amazing times which prompted you to take this adventure in the first place. The low points aren’t your fault, you’re not “doing it wrong.”
This isn’t to be negative and count the things that have gone wrong. Rather, it’s to acknowledge that there’s shitty times, and right afterwards, there’s the amazing times which prompted you to take this adventure in the first place. The low points aren’t your fault, you’re not “doing it wrong.” I remember (now with a giggle) being forlorn and crying on my bed in Colombia because I thought that I had made a mistake thinking that I was cut out for solo female travels in Latin America. It seemed, at that moment, that this was not what I was meant to be doing and that the nine months of preparation had been a waste. Low moment.
I threw up after dinner (if you can even call my meagre few spoonfuls of soup “dinner”) and crawled out of my little glamping hut and threw up all night too. I was that person on the trip. I lay awake in this spot which really is heaven on earth and thought to myself, “Oh crap, how am I going to hike more than 20 kilometres in the mountains sick, on an empty stomach, and without having slept?”
I voiced my fears to our guide, Carlos (a.k.a. “The Mountain King”) early the next morning and was confronted with the last words I ever wanted to hear on that trek: “Señorita, your options are to take the horse. And… those are your options.”
No. No, no, no, nonononono.
Salkantay Trek / Tilo Mitra
I thought back to our orientation two days ago when Carlos said that there was the option to take a horse up the steep climb up to the Salkantay Pass at 4,630m. At the time, I scoffed at this because things like hiking bring out a really weird competitive side of my personality and I considered horseback riding through the hardest section to be cutting corners. (I know. Maybe tone it down with the ego, right?) “None of us are taking the horse,” I said to Ronan and Miranda after the meeting. Looks like karma came for me for being such a hiking snob.
I got sick one more time and saddled up. The non-Instagrammable side of travel, right?
So there I was on this horse. The day was otherwise gorgeous. I mean, the world above 4,000m is ridiculously beautiful. The landscape is untouched, the plant life is so resilient at those heights (unlike, say, me), and silvery clouds blow in just grazing the mountaintops. My horse companion carried me alongside a rushing river and I looked back and glanced down at the camp below. This is a landscape that’s rugged and fairytale-like and a serious privilege to get to experience first-hand. It’s also unforgiving which… I found out about because then, it started to rain.
My horse and I had almost made it to the top (poor guy, he was working so hard and I felt very guilty). I was still admiring everything around me when the tears came on. Tears of anger and frustration. The thoughts that entered my mind were ones that probably sound really similar to anyone else who has experienced disappointment on what was supposed to be a bucket list adventure. “This would have been even more beautiful if I had climbed it myself… I won’t get to share in the sense of accomplishment with the others tonight… Can I even say that I completed the trek?”
We reached the top and I said goodbye to my buddy who carried me all that way up treacherously sloped mountain trails. And then, I continued along the trail. Day two of the trek totals 23.5 kilometres and I still had to cover a chunk of that on my own two feet. The route was remarkable and took us from the mystical and remote landscape surrounding the pass down to lower elevation (thank God!).
Then, I experienced a shift in attitude along with the shift in climate and the environment. At lunchtime, we ate high up in the rugged mountains but a mere few hours later, we were walking through jungle-like foliage. Green plants, moss, flowers, and vines took over every square inch of space. Rushing water thundered through the gorge below. I left my queasiness behind on the trail somewhere a little bit past the highest point.
Even the most carefully planned trips are going to throw a curveball or two. And sure, you could dwell on that (or, you know, cry on the back of a horse for a hot minute) but I think it’s better to recognize the non-Instagrammable side of travel as inevitable.
Ronan, Miranda and I arrived at the camp—a blissful, cloud forest sitting at the altitude where coffee grows and the Amazon starts to take over. I had a hot shower, a teeny tiny A-frame cabin all to myself, and a warm meal of Peruvian staples waiting for me. What more could a tired trekker want? Whatever mood-dampening thoughts had swirled around in my mind earlier were now gone. I made it. I was here with two of my favourite people in the world and I was surrounded by like-minded travellers and a mountain guide who not only saved my butt several times in the past 24 hours, but was now eager to chat with me in Spanish and show us all more about this prized part of his country. I was grateful to have my strength back, grateful to be there, excited for three more days of trekking and extremely happy to have survived the Salkantay Pass. Even if the last day had looked nothing like I imagined it would.
Even the most carefully planned trips are going to throw a curveball or two. And sure, you could dwell on that (or, you know, cry on the back of a horse for a hot minute) but I think it’s better to recognize the non-Instagrammable side of travel as inevitable. The downside of travelling might not feel great in the moment, but the truth is that you surrendered control when you booked that trip. Adventures aren’t adventures because of their predictability.
We left the country but not before a few other little snags. Ronan and Miranda’s flight out of Cusco got cancelled and they barely made it in the nick of time to catch their second one to Toronto. Someone somewhere managed to nab my camera and trekking jacket from my bag. But nevermind it. We look back on that trip with such positive memories and a good sense of humour. It doesn’t matter that we retell the same stories all the time, it’s just fun to relive that trip.
“Remember when Ronan ate that dodgy chicken and was so sick?”
“Remember Miranda’s connect-the-dots, bug-bitten desert legs?”
“Remember when Sinéad got altitude sickness and had to be dragged up the mountain by a horse?”
It’s funny because Humantay Lake, being the prized gem that it is, comes up in conversation all the time. When it does, I remember it all: the altitude sickness, sure, but also the jaw-dropping beauty of this magical place in Peru. The teal lagoon, snowy peaks, and chunks of glacial ice that break off the mountain and plunge into the pool below. I wonder what curveballs wait for me there the next time I visit. Whatever they are, I’ll take them in stride.
If I can walk, that is.